Mississippi took their kids away — so this couple started recording everything

FROM PART 1: Following a closed-door youth court hearing, a child-services caseworker arrives at the home of Jennifer and Scott Berry, walks in and begins waving a court order that empowers her to take their kids into state custody. Accused of mentally abusing their children, the couple fought tirelessly for months to prove their innocence, get their kids back and escape the bureaucratic maze of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

“I had to go take the kids in a room and explain to them,” Jennifer Berry said, pausing as she choked up and her eyes filled with tears, “that they were going to take them away, and there just wasn’t anything we could do.”

The DHS workers were rushing them the entire time, threatening to call the police if they didn’t hurry up, she said.

“Out by the car, I like literally begged her, I was like, ‘Don’t split them up because they couldn’t handle that,’” she said.

Before their parting, the distraught mother gave her children one last instruction. It was the only thing she could think of to give her kids some sense of comfort and hope.

“I told all the kids, ‘If they split you up, find each other at school,’” she said.

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The day after Jennifer and Scott Berry’s children were taken away from them by the Department of Human Services, they did not show up for school. The caseworker had been out until 1 a.m. finding placement homes for them. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

But the next morning, the children’s dad, Scott Berry, received back-to-back phone calls from the school, alerting him that none of his kids had shown up. That tiny bit of hope Jennifer Berry had given her children the night before had fallen apart.

Several days later, the couple found out DHS had split the children up among several foster homes.

At that point, they felt as if the deck were stacked against them. Rather than hoping the system would realize it had made a mistake, the Berrys took action. Scott Berry’s father flew in from England, and they demanded a meeting with the caseworker.

“And that’s when we started recording everything,” Jennifer Berry said.

Too much homework

The one thing the couple desperately wanted answered was the reason their children had been taken from them, and they wanted it on the record. This proved to be harder than it sounded.

During their first meeting, the DHS worker gave only vague, evasive answers. The following is a portion of that exchange as captured in the audio recording:

Scott Berry: I would like to know why my kids are not living in my home.

DHS worker: There is isolation or mental maltreatment, and when it comes to the minor children in question, they do not have the protective capacity to be able to do for themselves.

Scott Berry: Is this based on the fact that my two oldest kids know how to use a microwave?

DHS worker: No.

Scott Berry: Then what, what is it based on?

DHS worker: It’s, it’s only unrealistic expectations.

Scott Berry: What unhealthy expectations is it that you think that I have of my children that justifies you removing them from my home?

DHS worker: I only followed a court order to remove your children. It was not my decision. Like, I couldn’t physically go on my own and remove your children.

He continued to press the question until the worker eventually said the couple was isolating his 6-year-old daughter by requiring her to spend too much time on homework.

DHS worker: She does homework for three to four hours a day at night.

Scott Berry: No, she doesn’t. (She) has an hour time limit. She has an hour to do her homework. She either does it or she doesn’t.

DHS worker: OK. So what happens if she doesn’t do it in an hour’s time frame?

Scott Berry: She doesn’t get to play outside .... She can come out of her room. She can do whatever she wants to, but she doesn’t get to go play in the backyard. That’s a privilege.

He said he never received any explanation as to why DHS removed his and his wife’s other four children. Three of the children Jennifer Berry had brought into the marriage; the youngest child was theirs together.

The couple’s method for disciplining their 6-year-old was actually directed by a child psychiatrist from MYPAC, Mississippi Youth Program Around the Clock, which provides home-based psychiatric youth services in partnership with the Mississippi Division of Medicaid.

Ever since the couple had gained custody of the child from Scott Berry’s ex more than a year before, MYPAC professionals had been visiting their home weekly to work with the girl. She had behavioral problems from trauma she had suffered earlier in her life, he said.

The Berrys and their attorney eventually complained about their caseworker, prompting DHS to remove her from their case. This, however, caused additional problems, and the couple was bounced around from worker to worker and at one point, their case was not assigned to anyone.

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Scott Berry listens as his wife, Jennifer, talks on May 11, 2016 about the day the Hancock County Department of Human Services took their children in March 2014. The case was dismissed four months later as being unfounded. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Rather than waiting, the couple took the initiative to sign up for parenting classes, counseling, random drug screens and other services DHS typically requires of parents.

About two months later, the couple met with their initial caseworker again because DHS had not yet assigned a new caseworker. They had learned their 6-year-old was being allowed to spend the night with some maternal relatives who were not allowed to visit with the girl, by chancery court order.

Speaking to the DHS worker, as heard in the audio recording:

Jennifer Berry: There’s a lot of concerns about extended family on that side.

The caseworker noted their concern, then shifted the conversation to the amount of time their daughter spends on homework.

DHS worker: The thing that I want to talk about, like, going forward, for me, this is for me cause I know you guys always saying, ‘Can you tell me why my kids are being taken, blah blah blah blah blah?’

The worker asked the couple why, if their daughter was on the honor roll, they would continue to revoke privileges for not completing homework within a specified time frame.

Scott Berry: I expect my kids to be smart.

DHS worker: And I applaud you; very good, very smart children. But if your children are honor roll, gifted children and one child is not doing her homework in a 30-minute time frame but she meets all other criteria, why take away a snow cone, why take away recess?

Jennifer Berry: Are you serious?

The couple explained, as they had done several times before, they were following the specific disciplinary methods designed by MYPAC.

CASA turns the tide

By June 2014, about two months after DHS took their children away, the tide began to turn in the couple’s favor. The Youth Court had taken a closer look at the case and ordered an assessment from Court Appointed Special Advocates of Hancock County.

CASA is a national organization of trained volunteers who serve as the “eyes and ears” of the court in complex cases of child maltreatment, according to the nonprofit’s website.

“I still kind of attribute the end of the case to the CASA worker, who really knew the case,” Jennifer Berry said. “They just didn’t really let up because they knew it shouldn’t have happened.”

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A volunteer with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Hancock County, CASA, made a huge impact in Scott and Jennifer Berry’s case, speeding the process to return their children to them. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Another Youth Court hearing took place July 10. When the Berrys arrived, their attorney was summoned into a private room with the prosecutor, judge and guardian ad litem.

The Berrys didn’t know what was going on. They waited patiently until their attorney emerged from the meeting and gave them good news — the case was dismissed.

The judge ordered four of the kids returned home immediately. The 6-year-old was ordered to be transitioned back into the home over the next month.

Just days after all the kids came home, the Berrys packed up and moved as far away from Hancock County as they could get.

“The one place I always considered to be home, the place I always went back to eventually, the place my father grew up and where Scott’s mother and brother still live, not to mention all of our friends,” Jennifer Berry said, “will never be home again.”

Though the worst of their ordeal had passed, lingering effects began to emerge. Two of their children were wetting the bed at night. Some of the children — and their parents — were having nightmares and anxiety attacks.

“All I could do was replay their leaving in my mind and see their crying faces and hear their voices, confused and afraid,” Jennifer Berry said. “I had no idea what kind of people they were with, and we all have heard those awful horror stories, so there was no guarantee that they were with good people in a good home.”

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Jennifer Berry talks on May 11, 2016 about the day the Hancock County Department of Human Services took their children in March 2014. The case was dismissed four months later as being unfounded. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Their youngest had turned 1 while in DHS custody. When he came back home, he was speaking, saying his first word, “mama.” But Jennifer Berry knew her son was referring to someone else as his mother.

“That is a feeling that I can only describe as feeling like you have been punched in the stomach as hard as humanly possible,” she said.

Their 6-year-old daughter, who had already gone through traumatic experiences early in life, seemed to be most affected.

“DHS proved, throughout both our case and her mother’s case, to bring nothing but instability and insecurity to her life,” Jennifer Berry said. “She had been seeing therapists for a long time and at the time DHS removed her from us, she was undergoing a form of therapy focused on trauma. But now she was once again being traumatized.”

The couple feels the traumatic ordeal with DHS has permanently diminished their kids’ sense of security — an effect DHS officials say occurs whenever kids are removed from their home.

“It’s an understanding between parent and child: ‘I will never let anyone take you away,’” Jennifer Berry said. “Now they know that isn’t true. Now they know that at any second somebody can come in and take them out of their house. That changes, that takes something from a kid, and you should only be able to do that if you have to save the kid.”

In a March interview, DHS Regional Supervisor Pam Cross, speaking generally, agreed with Jennifer Berry’s assessment.

“That sense of security is forever changed,” Cross said. “Because now they know there’s something that Mom and Dad could not protect us from.” ... “For a child that’s been removed from their parents, that level of security is gone.”

Not alone

More than 2,000 children living in healthy, non-abusive homes, as deemed by DHS, are taken into custody every year in Mississippi, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

About 78.3 percent of all reports of child maltreatment DHS investigates are ultimately deemed unsubstantiated — meaning the children are not victims of child abuse or neglect. Still, roughly 21 percent of those non-abused, non-neglected children are taken into state custody, according to the HHS.

This means one child out of every five investigated and deemed as non-victims is taken away from his or her parents.

In February 2015, after the Berrys had settled into their new home outside Tupelo, they began paying close attention to news reports on Hancock County’s DHS office.

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Mississippi Department of Human Services, headquartered in Jackson, has increased the number of caseworkers in response to a federal order out of the Olivia Y lawsuit. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

One report struck a familiar chord. A single mother from Hancock County had walked into the sheriff’s office in January 2015 with a stack of documents and an allegation that sparked criminal investigations into DHS. The woman told investigators a child-services worker had forged a document and used it to take her child into state custody.

What was familiar to the Berrys was the name of the DHS worker accused of the forgery. It was, according to records from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, the same worker who’d handled their case in 2014 — Fegee Simms.

Click here to read part 3 of Fostering Secrets.

Click here to view the entire series.